The Issue of Race Part Three: Describing Skin Color

Dear Lovelies,

Last blog we went through the meaning of race and its importance (or non-importance) in fiction writing. After going through a lengthy discussion on the difference between race and ethnicity, and why race is not a biological component of a person, I think it’s imperative to say that character description is still necessary.

So if not race, what can we write?

Let’s do a recap. (For the previous post you can visit here).

There are many ways to get the race and ethnicity of a person across without having to state out loud their race. I urge writers who are not writing specifically on race to avoid the following terms/terminologies in their books: Black, White, Asian*, Hispanic, African-American, Latino/Latina, Red, Yellow (very offensive), POC, BIPOC, Indigenous*, Native American*

Before we proceed with writing, there are a few issues I need to discuss. There are very few blogs dedicated to helping individuals diversify their characters, especially as it concerns black/brown people. There is one blog out there (most people may know it) that does deal with this issue, but while it offers some helpful tips that I refer to, it often focuses on censoring writing rather than educating individuals on how to approach this topic.

Also, this blog also includes authors who are writing in the fantasy genre where racial implications and/or modern words related to race make it difficult to describe a person and still be diverse.

As a black author and writer, I do not believe in censoring anyone’s writing, but rather, educating people on how to use words in its context without coming across as racially ignorant. The only words that I’ve spoken about avoiding completely are obvious offensive words. Words that are not offensive, but may come across as overused or sexualized are pointed out, and I encourage writers to only use those words if it fits the context of your writing. 

Below, I’ve put together some color charts to help writers properly choose words that best reflects their character’s skin tone without having to use words that are heavily connotative to race and ethnicity. By focusing less on race (unless important to the story) and more on description, you can begin to create complex characters. 

You can pair the words below with other descriptors to create a more authentic feel of your characters. Using words such as undertone, golden, sun-kissed, tanned, ruddy, rosy, matted, satin, glowing, dark, light, or pale, you can bring across a more genuine character. 

One thing to note is that using food to describe skin-tones often comes across as erotic and even in some cases offensive, especially with darker complexions. I would suggest only using food if you’re writing romance or erotica, and when doing so take extreme caution. 

Light Complexions

Light complexions are melanated, but not as much to get a tan right off the bat. 

From left column to right: red/neutral undertones, cool undertones, warm/golden undertones

Medium Complexion

From left column to right, red/neutral undertones, cool undertones, warm/golden undertones

Medium complexions are somewhere between fair and deep. Medium tones are lighter, but more prone to tan in sunlight.

Deep Complexions

Lastly, deep complexions are the most melanated. 

From left column to right: cool undertones, red/neutral undertones, warm/gold undertones

Some things to note:

While the above color charts are there to guide, you can very much use your own similar colors to describe skin tone, but please be aware of using ‘food-types’ to describe skin, especially darker complexions. I would advise to stick with non-food objects (unless writing romance/erotica) as explained above. 

For the word ‘ebony’, I’ve also put in a stand-in word ‘onyx’. The reason for this is that the word ‘ebony’ tends to be identified with the adult entertainment industry when describing darker women. This word may come across as offensive. I would only use this word if pairing it with the word ‘wood/tree’ or if writing it in a romantic/erotic setting where the person using the word is a lover of similar complexion. 

While knowing what color names work well in describing skin tone, don’t neglect to use other identifiers to help to paint a picture of your character. In the next post, I’ll be sharing examples of how to use words as a way to paint an image. By using a bit of ‘purple prose’ and some metaphorical language, creating a physical description of a character will not only be easier, but it can give insight to your character’s personality as well. 

Check out my next post: Using Metaphorical Language